How to Teach Using Game-Based Learning

Initial Publication Date: June 2, 2004
Traditional "edutainment" is based on limited pedagogical models, and does not take advantage of the games' potential to simulate phenomena, engage the player through story, express ideas creatively, or collaborate with other players.
MIT Games To Teach Project (more info) (web site, as of 25 August, 2006)
What Makes a Good Game? | Playing Fair | Grades and Games

Define Objectives

What do you want the students to learn? It's very important to keep this idea central to planning your lesson and choosing or designing a game, or you may end up using a game in which the material to be learned is bypassed by the players.

Decide what sort of game and storyline (if appropriate)

Monster6 at Rocky Mt National Park

You may want to use a game that you already know is fun, like a trivia game, your favorite board game, or a relay race, and use that as a base for the rules.

  • Will this be a race, a quiz bowl, a simulation, or some other kind of game?
  • Should the students play individually or in teams? If they have teams, make sure that they come up with cool names.
  • Will they compete against each other or just for a score?

If players are not competing against each other, you will definitely want some kind of storyline for your game.

  • Are the students playing prospectors, paleontologists, or explorers?
  • Are the students trying to save a simulated town from a geologic hazard?
  • Are players reconstructing changes that have taken place through geologic time?

Break Objectives down into Challenges

It is also possible and often desirable, to have multiple levels of challenge.

  • For a trivia game, the challenges are individual questions.
  • For other types of games, they might be identifications, measurements, or other tasks.

Once a certain number of challenges have been accomplished, it's time to move on to harder tasks or a different kind of task.

Design Rewards

Appropriate prizes for completing or winning a game include:

  • Certificates
  • Snacks
  • Small prizes like interesting rocks (for geologists)
  • Grades - handle with care!

However, for a long-running project, early success could be rewarded with immediate admission to the next level.

Build Game

Work out the rules and print or assemble physical apparatus like cards, boards, etc. or write Java applets.

Although this can take a fair bit of time, and even some money, good-quality pieces are reusable, and exciting for students.

Test Game

This is a very important step! Have your playtesters assess issues like:

  • Fun (engagement)
  • Ease of play
  • How long the game takes
  • Most importantly, the integration of learning objectives into gameplay

If possible administer a pre- and post-test on the material to be learned before and after the game.

Run Game

If the students will be playing on teams, don't let them sort themselves into teams. Either assign them randomly or make sure that they are balanced in terms of experience with the subject.

  • Students should, however, name their own teams. If they balk, threaten to think of names for them. Some potential team names to motivate students to come up with their own: the Terrific Trilobites, the Fighting Feldspars, the Mighty Magmas....

While running a game, the major concerns will be to prevent cheating and, sometimes, especially with a physical game, to enforce safety issues.

Competitive or often even cooperative games are likely to make for a very noisy classroom.

What Makes a Good Game?

For Further Reading

Reuss and Gardulski, 2001 describe in detail the use of a board game to teach fossil identification and other material.